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The Weekly Horror Double Bill: Of Unknown Origin and Willard

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This week we've got a bit of a pest control problem with two very different solutions.

You've got rats in your house. Do you:

a) Do whatever it takes to kill the varmint?


b) Make it your best buddy?  

Of Unknown Origin (1983)

The title of George P. Cosmatos' film may suggest some otherworldly menace but, in truth, it’s about a rat and one mild-mannered office worker's obsession with exterminating said rodent.

When Bart Hughes’ wife and son go on vacation, Bart stays behind. He’s hoping for a promotion and can’t risk going away at such a crucial time. It’s not long however, before he realises he’s not alone in his newly renovated townhouse.

Director Cosmatos builds the tension like a master, giving us point of view shots of the “creature” accompanied by creepy scurrying sounds. It’s not so much not wanting to reveal the “monster” too soon as giving you, the viewer, a similar perspective to Bart, thus tying you more closely to the film's central character.

A pre-Robocop Peter Weller plays Bart Hughes in a tour de force performance that sucks you into the film; it has to, as Bart is the only fully developed character in the movie. We may encounter his fellow office workers and even his wife and child, but they’re not essential to the story. This is a primal tale of man against beast, with Bart’s need to kill the creature so all-consuming that nothing else matters, not work, not family, nothing but his need to end the vermin’s life.

The director realises he’s telling an epic story on a small scale and the film is littered with references to other famous man-against-nature encounters; the book Bart throws at the ceiling when he hears the rat scratching above him is Moby Dick, a movie showing on TV is John Sturges’ adaptation of Hemingway’s The Old Man of the Sea.

It may go a tad over the top towards the end, as Bart does more damage to the home he restored than the rat does, but then that’s the nature of obsession.

This is a little gem of a film that really deserves to be more well known. The trailer paints it as a supernatural tale in the vein of The Amityville Horror but it’s all the more effective for having a “real” monster. You’ll be listening for telltale sounds for days after it's ended.

Willard (2003)

An EC horror comic come to life is the best way to describe this remake of the '70s classic about a boy and his rat.

Willard Stiles lives with his elderly mother in a large ramshackle house and works as a low level employee at the company his late father built. When he attempts to deal with a rat problem in the cellar of the old house he instead winds up befriending the rats, in particular a white rat he calls Socrates. As well as Socrates, Willard also encounters a large rat who he dubs Ben. Soon he’s feeding the rats, with more and more of them coming until the basement is a virtual sea of vermin.

Picked on by his tyrannical boss, played with relish (always a good accompaniment to ham) by R. Lee Ermey, Willard uses the rats to get some payback, first in minor ways but gradually escalating to murder.

Director Glen Morgan was responsible for the worst of the current glut of horror remakes, Black Christmas. With that film he seemed to be trying for a similar tongue in cheek feel to this one but thanks to a risible script, some diabolical (in the worst possible way) performances, and a large helping of studio interference, he failed miserably.

What he got wrong on that film he gets right here. For starters there’s some excellent casting. Crispin Glover is perfect as the cartoonish, socially inept Willard and it’s hard to believe he wasn’t first choice for the role (Joaquin Phoenix and Macaulay Culkin both turned down the part). Ermey is the real villain of the film, a caricature of a greedy, bullying employer, and he milks the part for all it’s worth, providing much of the film's humour.

Obviously a fan of the original, Morgan pays homage to it, with the photos and paintings of Willard’s dead father clearly Bruce Davison, who played Willard in that film. He also makes good use of Michael Jackson’s song "Ben" that featured in the 1972 sequel, using it during my favourite scene, where a cat finds itself in the house with literally thousands of rats and nowhere to run.

What the film lacks in gore and scares it makes up for with comic book violence and a knowing sense of humour, far from a classic but still a fun way to spend an evening.

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About Ian Woolstencroft

  • Iloz Zoc

    I remember Of Unknown Origin. Excellent, fun film. Borders on the surreal. Definitely needs more exposure.